Elizabeth Smither, Ruby Duby Du, Cold Hub Press, 2013
Elizabeth Smither is an award-wining poet and novelist. She was named New Zealand Poet Laureate in 2002 and was awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry in 2008. On the back of her new book, Ruby Duby Du, Elizabeth says, ‘None of these compares to being a grandmother.’
This delightful book signals the burgeoning output of small presses –- handcrafted books with smallish print runs, scope for new poets to emerge, and established poets to publish miniature gems or take sidestepping risks. Elizabeth’s book, published by Dunedin’s Cold Hub Press, is a gold nugget of a book and deserves to be under the pillow of every new mother and father, and in the gift box of every newborn child. It is an utter delight from curling fingertip to wriggling toe.
The new collection, with delicate illustrations by artist Kathryn Madill, is a book of poems dedicated to Ruby (born 2011) from her grandmother, Elizabeth. It begins with the announcement of a pregnancy, and ends with Ruby in her father’s arms and the counting of stars. Love is both the movement and the anchor that holds Elizabeth’s poetry in warm embrace. These poems are intimate, personal and captivatingly real.
I was taken back, convincingly, mesmerisingly to the birth of my daughters — to a time when the world moves into acute and breathtaking focus (as though you have a new pair of glasses). To a time when certain things matter so much less and fade into pale.
Each poem resonates with a particular moment — measuring Ruby in the womb (‘the height of a tall vase/ a blue iris’); cleaning windows for Ruby’s visit (‘Your grandmother/ had clean windows for her first granddaughter/ and everything glowed from then’).
There is tenderness and charm, but there is also wit running through the veins of these poems — the cheekiness of the grandmother along with the deep love. In ‘The grandparents intervene’ (a terrific poem!) the grandparents await news of the birth in their separate houses (‘In two separate houses broken sleep/ and then you broke into the world, Ruby’). The poem ends on the two clocks (his ‘from a ship’ and hers ‘from a shop that sold antiques’). The clock is resonant of time to come and time past but is also enriched by these divergent origins.
Elizabeth’s wit is sparkling in ‘Ruby and the mock-rivalry.’ The baby (that can’t yet speak) tells the grandfather she wants to captain an ocean liner. The grandmother knows the only reason Ruby might want to go to sea is ‘to write a book in which case/ the breath of the sea might come in handy.’
More than anything, these poems are songs to Ruby. Elizabeth has drawn upon her craft as a poet, found the music in a line, the detail that you want to hold onto and share (let’s take a photograph and preserve this moment), the way the movement in a new life can generate delicious movement in a poem (what poem can survive without this). There is thought (the way some occurrences can be slipped through a philosophical filter) and there is heart (the way some things are steered by gut and intuition, along with love).
In ‘Ruby and the vegetable rockery,’ Elizabeth aligns silver beet and Ruby (‘Though they are unacquainted at present/ each is pulling itself up by the roots’). I have never read a poem where a baby and silver beet are poetic companions, but Elizabeth’s collection is full of surprises. The poem, like the book as a whole, is layered like the vegetable rockery – the poet has planted herself and Ruby in every nook and cranny, and you will brush against the sheer joy of new life. Elizabeth shows that poetry can put the world (in this case, Ruby) in loving focus. It is a gift to read. It is a gift to share!